Needs More Salt

The Union naval blockade of the South severely limited the Confederacy’s overseas trade. While swift moving blockade runners managed to evade Union warships throughout the war, these vessels could not possibly bring in enough goods to make up for the loss of trade. This loss was especially glaring for one crucial commodity: salt.

Although there were large salt mines in Virginia, cheap foreign-produced salt had been the South’s major source of the mineral before the war. Within months of the war’s outbreak, the Confederacy faced a salt crisis as its armies, which required massive supplies of salted pork, and citizens quickly used up stocks of the vital preservative. The South soon turned to Florida to make up its sodium deficit.

  Map of northwest Florida, including Alabama and Mississippi, ca. 1861-1865


Map of northwest Florida, including Alabama and Mississippi, ca. 1861-1865

Florida’s long coastline made it ideal for salt production. The process involved boiling kettles of seawater and refining the salt though a process of repeated dipping, pouring and drying.

While salt-making occurred on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, most of the salt works were on the Gulf from Tampa Bay north through the Florida Panhandle, with the biggest concentration along the St. Andrews Bay in Washington County and St. Joseph’s Bay in Gulf County (Calhoun County before 1925).

These bays were ideal for salt-making, containing all the resources needed for production: salt marshes, pine forests for firewood, and relative seclusion, which made it difficult for Union raiding parties to approach undetected. Salt works ranged from a few kettles to makeshift factories fired by steamboat boilers.

Along with the many Floridians engaged in the work, Alabamians and Georgians poured in to make salt. Their states also established government-owned works to supply their citizens with salt at reduced prices—the price in Atlanta, for example, was sometimes as high as $140 a sack—to compensate for rampant speculation in the trade. Florida Governor John Milton denounced the “vile spirit of speculation and extortion.” He removed from sale public lands in the most lucrative salt-making areas, where speculators were buying up land to sell at exorbitant prices, and proposed a tax in-kind on in-state manufactured salt to provide for poor families. The Confederate government tried to limit speculation by establishing its own works at St. Andrews Bay, where large state-run factories produced salt for the Confederate Army.

Many of the Confederate deserters who sought refuge in Florida were joined by shirkers who claimed to be salt makers but were actually using the trade as an excuse to avoid military service.  Confederate conscription laws exempted salt makers from the draft. Public outcry against phony salt makers resulted in legislative approval of Governor Milton’s call to form salt workers into a militia to defend the works against Union raids. Those salt makers who refused to join the militia faced exclusion from future salt production.

Destruction of a rebel salt factory on the Florida coast (September 15, 1862)

Destruction of a rebel salt factory on the Florida coast (September 15, 1862)

Union raiding parties did not discriminate between fake and real salt makers: the United States considered anyone engaged in the trade in the South to be an active Rebel. In 1862, the U.S. Navy began operations against salt works in Florida. The Union created two operational commands for the blockade of Florida’s coast: the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which also covered the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, and the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, which covered the Gulf from Key West to a line just east of Pensacola. Union gunboats shelled salt-making plants and landed raiding parties to destroy the works and supplies of salt.

Hundreds of slaves worked in the salt business. Many of them built the works, supplied them with wood, stoked the fires and produced salt. While initially leery of the Union raiders, slaves eventually provided important intelligence information regarding the location of salt works. Slaves also fled to Union ships, making their way individually to gunboats or escaping the coast with Union raiding parties. Many of these “contrabands,” the Union’s legal term for escaped slaves, joined the U.S. Navy or enlisted in the U.S. Army. As soldiers and sailors, they joined the ranks of the salt raiders.

In November 1861, James Boyd, an engineer aboard the Union gunboat U.S.S. Albatross, wrote to his wife about some of the St. Andrews Bay raids in which he participated. A portion of Boyd’s letter, which can be found in the Louis James Boyd Papers at the State Library and Archives of Florida, is quoted (except for paragraphs and periods, without editing) below:

“. . . .Well we left Pensacola on the 14th of this month, for this place [St. Andrews Bay], we arrived here on the 16th. The object of this Expedition was to destroy Salt-Pans, which the Rebels have to make Salt in. Since we have been laying here we have fit out some four or five Small Boat Expeditions, which has proven very successful. We have destroyed more Salt-Pans than all the other Expeditions put together. The Salt-Pans that I speak of are generally Situated in Small Creeks and Swamps. We cannot get to them in the Steamer [the Albatross], therefore we have to go in small Boats.

The manner in which those Expeditions are arranged are that we would leave the ships about four o’clock in the morning, and proceed up the Bay until we would discover Smoke, for that is the only way that those pans can be found by a stranger. As soon as we would get near enough we would then fire at them with a Small Cannon we have and such Skidaddeling you never seen in your life. They would leave everything behind them. We went in Several of there camps and found there Breakfast cooked and on the Table ready for eating, which our boys would soon demolish, after rowing So early in the Morning. We would then set about breaking up their pans and works. . . .”

The U.S. Gunboat Mohawk chasing the rebel steamer Spray into the St. Marks River (1862)

The U.S. Gunboat Mohawk chasing the rebel steamer Spray into the St. Marks River (1862)

Boyd’s account is typical of the irregular war waged on Florida’s coast. Despite their frequency, the salt raids were never enough to stop Confederate salt production in Florida, which historian Robert Taylor has called “Florida’s most important contribution to the Confederate economy.”

See Taylor’s Rebel Storehouse (University of Alabama Press, 1995), the definitive account of Florida’s economic role in the war.

 

 

Virginia is for Killers

The Confederate experiment seemed doomed in the spring of 1862. On the Mississippi River, Union forces occupied New Orleans and launched a drive to wrest control of the river from the Rebels.

In the East, the plodding Peninsula campaign of General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac finally reached the outskirts of Richmond at the end of May amidst rumors that the Confederate government was ready to evacuate their capital.

On May 31, however, the Rebels struck back. General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army attacked McClellan’s forces at the crossroads of Seven Pines village east of Richmond. Although Johnston’s force outnumbered the Federals, he had devised a far too complex plan of battle, which resulted in a series of uncoordinated and costly attacks against determined Union resistance.

The fighting continued into the morning of June 1 and ended with the Confederates withdrawing from the battle after failing to break Union lines. While the immediate result of the battle was inconclusive, there were two important consequences.

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Unheralded Emancipation (May, 1862)

On May 9, 1862, Union Major General David Hunter declared freedom for all slaves living in the states of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Although his declaration was not the first emancipation measure during the war (Major General John C. Frémont had previously ordered the freeing of Rebel-owned slaves in Missouri), Hunter’s action shocked both the Confederate and Union governments.

Receipts for the sale of slaves: Tallahassee (September 19, 1862)

Receipts for the sale of slaves: Tallahassee (September 19, 1862)

The seceded states had long portrayed the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln as a government of radical abolitionists. Lincoln, however, pursued a conservative approach to emancipation, which he did not officially endorse until September 1862 with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

While he personally abhorred slavery and hoped for its eventual extinction, Lincoln argued that secession, not the existence of slavery in the South, was the reason for the war. He believed that a crusade for emancipation would lose the slave-owning Border States (Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland) to the Confederacy. This concern led him to revoke Frémont’s order and remove the general from command.

Unlike Frémont’s order, which only applied to slaves owned by persons actively supporting secession, Hunter’s order called for the liberation of all slaves, whether owned by Confederates or Unionists, within the area of his command (South Carolina, Georgia and Florida).

It did not differentiate between slaves actively employed in Confederate war work and those engaged in civilian labor such as agriculture, which was the previous requirement for releasing slaves under the Union’s Confiscation Act of 1861. Hunter then used his order to enlist freed slaves into the Union Army.

Contrabands (runaway slaves) escaping to the Unites States bark Kingfisher off the coast of Florida (1862)

Contrabands (runaway slaves) escaping to the Unites States bark Kingfisher off the coast of Florida (1862)

Lincoln insisted that only the President as commander-in-chief could issue an emancipation order. He announced that his government had no prior knowledge of Hunter’s intent to issue such a proclamation and declared the order void.

The War Department ignored Hunter’s effort to create a black regiment. While Hunter’s policies made him popular with abolitionists, most Northerners in the spring of 1862 were not ready for emancipation or the arming of freed blacks.

The South’s view of Hunter’s policies was obviously even less enthusiastic. Emancipation and arms for blacks fed the long-held Southern fear of confronting an insurrectionary slave population.

The Confederate government viewed Hunter’s actions as a call for slave rebellion and a racial outrage. It proclaimed General Hunter an outlaw. If captured, he would not be entitled to the rights of a prisoner of war but liable for execution at the discretion of the President of the Confederate States.

Ironically, Jefferson Davis, the president who would have signed Hunter’s death warrant, had known Hunter for over 30 years; they had been friends since first meeting as young army officers in 1829.

For a complete picture of Hunter’s fascinating and controversial career—he also served as president of the military commission that tried the suspects in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy—see Edward A. Miller, Jr., The Biography of David Hunter: Lincoln’s Abolitionist General (University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

Drawing of African-American soldiers during the Civil War (ca. 1863)

Drawing of African-American soldiers during the Civil War (ca. 1863)

Of course the biggest potential impact of Hunter’s emancipation order and recruitment of blacks was on slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Only a month before Hunter’s proclamation, several escaped slaves who had flocked to Union gunboats off of Jacksonville, which the Federals had captured in March, were forcibly returned to their Confederate masters after the Union evacuated the city in April 1862.

A year later, however, when the Union occupied Jacksonville for a third time, it was black soldiers of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry regiments who greeted the escaped slaves. No longer unheralded, the black soldiers’ expedition filled the columns of newspapers across North and South.

April 1862: Carnage and Conscription

Florida and the Civil War

This is the third in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

On the morning of April 6, 1862, the men of the 1st Florida Infantry Battalion crossed Shiloh Branch stream to engage the enemy in what turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. In two days of fighting, over 23,000 men died in the Battle of Shiloh, which saw two massive Union and Confederate armies clash in the fields and woods surrounding Shiloh Meeting House, a Methodist Church near the banks of the Tennessee River in southwest Tennessee.

Major General James Patton Anderson (ca. 1862)

Major General James Patton Anderson (ca. 1862)

The 1st Florida Battalion was a unit in the brigade of Brigadier General James Patton Anderson, a part of General Albert Sydney Johnson’s Army of Mississippi. Anderson, a member of Florida’s secession convention and delegate to the Provisional Confederate Congress in Montgomery, had commanded Florida troops at Pensacola before being ordered to move his men to Corinth Mississippi to reinforce the faltering Confederate front in the west.

At Shiloh, Patton’s Floridians became the first Florida soldiers to see action outside of their state. In one of the most terrifying engagements of a battle that was full of horrible episodes, the Floridians were among the Confederate forces that charged the Union troops defending the Sunken Road. After only a few minutes of fighting, the Florida Battalion lost several officers and men but continued to attack the Union position. The battalion survived to fight on April 7, the second day of the battle, and ended the fight with over a quarter of its strength of 250 men either dead or wounded. Although the Union army under Major General Ulysses S. Grant lost more men than the Confederates, the Confederates failed in their mission of destroying Grant’s army and withdrew back into Mississippi.

Confederate soldier Lawrence “Laurie” M. Anderson of Tallahassee

Confederate soldier Lawrence “Laurie” M. Anderson of Tallahassee, killed at the Battle of Shiloh on April 7, 1862

The carnage at Shiloh—the Confederates suffered over 10,000 casualties—combined with the toll of the battles waged across the South since secession resulted in the Confederate government’s decision to pass the Conscription Act on April 16, 1862. The Conscript Act, as it was usually called in the press of the day, was the first national draft in American history (the Union would begin drafting men in 1863). Although President Jefferson Davis and a majority of the Confederate Congress supported the act, conscription was probably the most divisive and unpopular Confederate law passed during the war. The Conscript Act authorized the Confederate president to draft all able bodied white male residents of the Confederate States between the ages of 18 and 35 for three years of military service and extended the service of all men of draft age already in the Confederate forces.

In order to avoid the stigma attached to conscription, which many Southern men saw as an affront to their honor because it seemed to question their willingness to fight, most men volunteered before the draft took effect. Men and women across the South also hated the Act because it allowed a man who could afford it to pay a substitute to serve in his place. Politically, the draft was unpopular because it seemed a direct threat to states’ rights, the doctrine that the South had used to justify secession. Up to 1862, only states could draft men (usually for emergency militia service). Now the national government was demanding that states turn over their men for military service rather than allowing states to organize volunteers and offer them for service as had been done in all of America’s previous wars.

Many state governors denounced the Conscript Act as unconstitutional and resisted compliance. This was especially the case for Florida’s neighbor Georgia, where Governor Joseph E. Brown became the South’s principal opponent of the draft and the policies of Jefferson Davis. Brown made every effort to resist and delay the implementation of conscription in Georgia.

Portrait of Florida’s 5th Governor, John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

Portrait of Florida’s 5th Governor, John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

In Florida, Governor John Milton was also philosophically opposed to the draft as an infringement on states’ rights; however, he was willing to put off the question of the constitutionality of the draft until after the war was won. Milton reasoned that the constitutionality of the Conscript Act would be irrelevant if the South lost the war. He believed it was more important for the states to support President Davis and the Confederate government to enroll the manpower necessary to fight the Union: “Impending clouds of destruction hover over, and threaten the destruction of our liberties, of all rights of property, and the dishonor of our wives and children. The threatened evils can only be prevented by concert of action between the State Governments and the Confederate Government, and the indomitable and invincible courage and unfaltering patriotism of our entire population.”

Milton never retreated from these words contained in his 1862 annual message to the state legislature. He became one of the staunchest defenders of conscription and the leadership of Jefferson Davis, even naming a son born in 1863 after the Confederate president. This son, Jefferson Davis Milton or “Jeff Davis,” became one of the West’s most famous law enforcement officers, serving the U.S. government as a legendary immigration officer along the Mexican border, defending the sovereignty of the nation his father had tried to defeat.

March 1862: Invasion!

Florida and the Civil War

This is the second in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

March 1862: Invasion!

The arrival of a Union invasion fleet off Amelia Island on March 3, 1862, was a startling but not unexpected event. As early as October 1861, Governor John Milton notified neighboring Confederate governors that a Union invasion fleet was steaming southward for a possible landing in Florida. Although the fleet’s target at that time was Port Royal, South Carolina, not Florida, ships from the flotilla eventually transported the Union expeditionary force that descended on Amelia Island in March.

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

For months, east coast Confederate and Unionist Floridians had expected Federal troops to land in Florida. Although a Federal raiding party occupied the Gulf port of Cedar Key in January 1862, under orders from General Robert E. Lee, General James H. Trapier, the commander of Confederate forces in the Department of Middle and East Florida (the area from the Atlantic to the Choctawhatchee River in the west), concentrated the bulk of his forces for the defense of Amelia Island. Meanwhile in Jacksonville, a city with a strong Unionist element, pro-Union men and women awaited the liberation of their city, where many of them were threatened by secessionist vigilance committees.

By March 1862, however, the Unionists had more cause for optimism than the secessionists. Confederate defeats in Tennessee during February resulted in the Richmond government’s decision to withdraw its troops from Florida to reinforce Tennessee. As the Union fleet approached, General Trapier ordered the withdrawal of his troops from Amelia Island. On March 4, the Federals occupied Fernandina after the last train carrying troops and fleeing civilians crossed the bridge to the mainland under the fire of the USS Ottawa, a Union gunboat. Fernandina remained under Union control for the rest of the war and became a place of refuge for hundreds of escaped slaves from Florida and southeast Georgia.

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February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida and the Civil War

This is the first in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida’s precarious position on the periphery of the Confederacy became even more exposed in February 1862, when the Confederate government ordered the withdrawal of all but a handful of the Confederate forces in Florida.

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

This decision came in the wake of a series of Union victories during the first half of the month. Federal troops in Tennessee under the command of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson on February 6 and 16 respectively. In between those victories, on February 8, a Union naval force captured Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast.

These victories resulted in the surrender of thousands of Confederate troops and opened the way for Union thrusts into the Confederate interior, especially in the West, where Grant advanced south towards Mississippi. A shocked and dispirited Confederate government rushed to reinforce the West by withdrawing Confederate troops from Florida.

On February 18, Richmond ordered General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate army at Pensacola, to withdraw his units and send them to Tennessee as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, on Florida’s east coast, General Robert E. Lee began preparations to remove most of the forces under his command. At this stage of the war, Lee was responsible for the defense of the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and East Florida. On February 24, the Confederate War Department ordered Lee to transfer units under his command in Florida to Tennessee. He was only to keep enough troops in Florida to block Union entry into the St. Johns River and for the defense of Apalachicola: the Confederate government feared Union capture of Apalachicola could result in an invasion of Georgia from the south.

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

By the end of the month, Florida was virtually defenseless as a Union flotilla carrying an invasion force approached the coast.